Germany, a Companion to German Studies

By Jethro Bithell | Go to book overview

CHAPTER X

GERMAN LITERATURE FROM 1880 TO 1954

IN a sense it is possible to say that the literature of the period 1880-1954 begins with the bürgerliches Trauerspiel (p. 247), in which for the first: time in literature middle-class characters are depicted as capable of tragic emotion. This development continues practically without interruption; for even the characters of the classical period belong for the most part to the middle classes: Werther, Tasso, Wilhelm Meister, and Faust illumine essentially the same problems of artistic mentality as those of Thomas Mann's fiction; the theme even of Schiller Don Carlos is that political liberalism which ferments in the writings of Jungdeutschland, moves the hectic tides of Spielhagen's novels, and is distorted in the communistically crazy preaching of universal brotherhood in the expressionism which followed the First World War. In the main lines this literature of a century and a half is a gradual fading, culminating in the reductio ad absurdum of Thomas Mann Königliche Hoheit, of the glamour in which monarchs and nobles had lived a charmed life, and a corresponding intensification of the mental life of men belonging to all classes of society.

The drastic change of ideals at the beginning of our period had been gradually prepared; indeed, though the performance of Gerhart Hauptmann's Vor Sonnenaufgang in 1889 can be used as a landmark in the same way as the production of Hernani is used in dating the first crashing victory of the French Romantic movement, in reality it only marks the date when the existence of a new orientation in literature was forced on the consciousness of the nation at large. The origins of the new doctrine are to be found in Gutzkow, who preached 'the emancipation of the flesh'; in Spielhagen, who continued Gutzkow, particularly in his hostility to existing forms of government; and in the 'poetic realism' of such writers as Otto Ludwig and Gottfried Keller.

The state of literature in 1880 was respectable but stagnant. In lyric verse the scholarly poets of the Munich school had achieved a perfection of form which is apt to weary by its monotony and lack of rude masculinity; its themes were decent but hackneyed; and even the outer appearance of the volumes was used to typify it in the term of opprobrium,

-278-

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